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IV. In the Anti-Nazi Underground of the Kovno Ghetto

The Craving for Resistance and its Realization

Just as it was forbidden to bring into the Ghetto food, fuel and, of course, weapons, so bringing in reading material was strictly prohibited. In spite of this, individuals and groups were involved in smuggling. It was done via the gate to the Ghetto or along the wall surrounding the entire Ghetto and guarded by armed Lithuanian guards. Because of the hunger and bitter cold that we frequently experienced in our house, I, also occasionally endangered myself by smuggling food, coal and from time to time, a newspaper – in order to follow what was happening outside the Ghetto, and in particular on the War front. One day I got hold of a newspaper with a picture of a man who was described in German as Bandenfuerer Tito, gang leader Tito and who fought against the Germans in Yugoslavia. I had such a great longing to meet a man like this in the Kovno area! I eventually learned that already in the summer of 1942 the Polish Irena Adomowicz from the Vilna Ghetto secretly infiltrated the Ghetto as a representative of Hashomer Hatzair. The aim of her visit was to encourage the members of the various Zionist movements in the area to increase their organized opposition to the Germans. However, because of the extreme secrecy of her visit, I did not get to meet her, but shortly after I became aware of the active results of her visit. At the same time, I began to hear fascinating accounts of the activities of anti-Nazi partisans in the forests of eastern Lithuania. But how was one able to reach them? When I revealed my wish to some of my close friends in Hashomer Hatzair, I found out that they were already involved in the underground that hoped to attain the same goal. Naturally, I joined the cell of one of those underground groups. Leading the group of three (the troika) was a young woman named Gitta Pogeer, who today is a member of Kibbutz Reshafim. A strange feeling overcame us when one summer evening in 1943, Gitta brought us the bolt of a rifle wrapped in a German newspaper. Even before that, we had heard rumors that there were weapons in the Ghetto, and the stories of the acquisition of arms were passed by word of mouth, but now we were able to feel the cold steel in our own hands! With all of that, we knew that we had to learn quickly how to assemble and disassemble the rifle since another cell was waiting for it. Gitta tested our familiarity and it turned out that she had just learned what she was teaching us yesterday. I was forbidden to reveal my membership in the underground even to my own parents and sister. They probably guessed that I was involved in something serious and important, but they did not discuss it with me. From then on, every aspect of my life was connected to the underground.

The “Estonia Aktziye” – My Watershed Event in the Ghetto

In the fall of 1943, rumors circulated that lists of Jews were being prepared in order to send them to work camps

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outside the Ghetto. Later, it was understood that they were talking about Estonia, the northernmost of the three Baltic states. In the underground groups, they spoke of the possibility that members of the organization and their relatives would not be included in the lists of deportees. In any case, the members were required to provide the organizations' leadership with personal details about our families and ourselves. The deportation began in the morning of the 26th of October 1943, when units of German and Lithuanian police, accompanied by members of the Jewish police, dispersed among all the houses of the Ghetto to assemble the people intended for Estonia. Even the underground enlisted its members, myself included, and stationed us at the assembly points that had been previously designated.

That afternoon, I was sent to a three-story building in the Kovno Ghetto called Bloc C. According to rumor, its basement had an excellent hiding place. On my way there, when I passed by our house, I was shocked to see German and Jewish police forcibly removing my family from their house. The sight of seeing my sister scream bitterly and my despairing father made me want to join them. At that very second, my mother did something that I shall never forget – she gave me an intense look that clearly meant “Get away from here immediately.” And so, I did, without even looking back. That was the last I saw them alive. After the war, I learned that my father most likely perished when the Germans were forced from Estonia in the fall of 1944. My mother and sister who were then evacuated to the Stutthoff Concentration Camp, died of illness at the end of that year.

Of course, I could not have known this when I saw them then for the last time – but at the sight of their hopelessness, I felt in addition to the deep pain also a burning anger that the underground organization was unsuccessful in guaranteeing the safety of my family as I had secretly hoped.

When I reached Bloc C, in mourning and confused, at the entrance I was met by a Jewish policeman, Daniel Birger. I disclosed to him the required password, “Can I stay here overnight?” His response was that he permitted me to enter. Someone removed a cover from the floor and removed some stones that were underneath. Suddenly, I felt that I was sliding downwards until a few pairs of hands led me to a dark room where I could only make out a few lit cigarettes. Within a short time, someone thrust a sandwich into my hands. During the long hours I was there my eyes got used to the darkness and it became clear that along with me in the cellar of Bloc C were a few dozen members of the underground, some of them armed ready to resist their deportation with force. Several times, we heard the voices of Germans searching for people to deport but fortunately, they did not find us. Later our contact people outside told us that the danger had passed. The Germans had already succeeded in locating and deporting the 3,000 required for forced labor in Estonia and we were permitted to leave our hiding place. Even so, we were told, “You are free to go now, but shortly you will have to report

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to a meeting place, an apartment at Broliu Street 8, since it is very likely that you will be leaving the Ghetto tonight.” From this announcement, I realized that they were talking about secretly leaving the Ghetto for the partisans' forests in the Augustowa area in southwest Lithuania. Thinking about this prospect, provided me with a tiny bit of comfort after a long black day on which I apparently lost forever my parents and only sister without even a suitable shared parting word. I walked stumbling in order to take leave of the green wooden house at Linkuvos Street 56, where my family lived almost from the beginning of the Ghetto until that very day.

I found our house looking as though it had just gone through a pogrom: the doors, windows and closets were smashed and on the floor was a mixture of household items, clothing and food. I had the feeling that someone had already gone through it searching for useful items. Perhaps, it was the neighbors. They received me graciously, but also with surprise. They were under the impression that I was also deported to Estonia that morning along with my family. At that moment, I resolved that come what may, I would never return to this house. I also shared my determination with the neighbors but certainly did not let them know and did not even hint to them about the possibility of me leaving the Ghetto that night. For some reason, I accepted some sandwiches from them and ran as quickly as possible to the assembly point apartment.

The message we got was definitely disappointing: since the Ghetto was still surrounded by an augmented number of German troops, it would not be possible to break through the wall as originally planned for that night. One had to have the spirit to patiently wait until the next opportunity. However, we were already all fired up to leave for the forests. Especially disappointed and crestfallen were those of us, myself included, who were totally alone, bereft of family. As brothers of a shared fate, it seemed like we wanted to remain together from now on under all circumstances – whether we would be able to reach the forests or whether, God forbid, this possibility would again be denied to us. Naturally, some of us, and especially those who had most recently lost their parents, stayed together at the apartment of our friend Penina Sukenik at Broliu 8 Street. More accurately, it was the attic above the apartment that for some reason was known as “The Babilsky's attic floor.” Here, the secret cells merged (the 'troika') and we conducted our lives on a communal basis like the kibbutz preparatory groups before the war. Even so, we hoped that this would only serve as a temporary shelter, since shortly after the Estonia Aktzia, from the end of October through the month of November 1943, the attempts of the underground to smuggle groups in an organized manner to the Augustov forests in southwest Lithuania resumed in high gear.

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The Unfortunate Chapter of the Flight to the Augustow Forest

In the passion of the meticulous and thorough planning for this undertaking, the secrecy that surrounded the escape plans was relaxed somewhat and all of us were memorizing the names of the towns and forests located on the route that we would take. Above all, we were apprehensive about how the groups leaving the Ghetto would be made up and who would be in them. The candidates to take part in the escape were chosen very carefully according to their skills and their resourcefulness that would permit them to participate in such a dangerous and difficult venture. Special care was taken regarding the participation of girls. Each participating youth movement was permitted a small quota of girls and the final decision was up to the members each individual movement.

In keeping with this agreement, Hashomer Hatzair was permitted to choose four out of the fifteen young women who presented themselves as candidates. I remember as though it happened today, the dramatic meeting with twenty-five senior members of the movement participating gathered around the stub of a candle in Babilsky's attic as we agonized on how to come to this fateful decision. First, it was thought that the contenders should be divided according to certain indispensable criteria – Aryan appearance;* fluency in the Lithuanian language; physical endurance and a familiarity with their surroundings. This was truly a fateful deliberation and all those involved felt it. The lead discussant, Ali Rauzuk, the head of the chapter, and Moshe Petrikansky, the head of the combat units, attempted to explain in a rational manner the need for making the awesome decision that very night, since the following day they had to submit the names to the underground leadership. At variance with them were those who favored the candidacy of one person over the other also from an emotional standpoint, such as Moshe Elionsky who took up the cause of our friend Rachel (Koka) Rozental who was the only one of her family still alive. “Koka must be among those going,” he cried in bitterness while the rest lowered their tearing eyes. Bilhah Markus responded with a deep sigh when her turn came to speak. And what was she to say? She did not have any of the requirements needed for a young woman to be sent out on the dangerous and complicated mission. Suddenly, I heard my own voice protesting my exclusion from participating at this stage because of a broken right ankle that had not yet healed adequately. “I'll limp after you with my broken foot if you leave me behind!” Very slowly, they all left to go to sleep and the four pleased young women, Hana Simon, Miryam Eydels, Mira Buz and Rachel (Koka) Rozental, did not know whether to rejoice or to cry. Conversation faded along with the candle stub and depression hung in the air. Beginning with the next morning after that critical night and for the days following, the “lucky ones” who were chosen left us for the forests of Augustow, while I and several of my friends who were rejected continued to live at the same place. Over time, additional Hashomer Hatzair members and others joined us.

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Still, almost every day alarming Job-like reports about the terrible fate of the dozens who left for the Agustov forests reached us. A large number perished at the hands of the Lithuanians who ambushed them on the roads; the others returned to the Ghetto dejected and bewildered and only two succeeded in reaching the desired objective. They were Shmulik Mordkovski, a member of the Young Pioneers (Hehalutz Hatzair) and Nehemia Endlin, from the Antifascist Fighting Organization (the Communists). However, once they reached the goal, they found no trace of the partisan base they had been assured of by the heads of the Communists both inside and out of the Ghetto. To our great sorrow, we learned that among those who died in the venture were six of our finest colleagues Moshe Elionsky, Benjamin Volovitzky, Leo Ziman, Nahman Levin, Arie Mitzkun and Jakov Strasburg

In the Kibbutz – Mildos 7

Stunned and depressed by the appalling failure of the Augustow venture in which we lost the finest of our colleagues, it was only natural that we cut off the organizational link with the communists, or as they were known in the Ghetto, Antifascist Fighting Organization. Their leaders were responsible for planning this failed endeavor. With this, we drew even closer to the Socialist Zionist camp in the Ghetto. As a result, we, along with some members of Dror/Ha-chalutz Hatzair moved to a four-room shed on Mildos Street 7. This residence was called “Kibbutz Mildos 7,” and it along with its social and cultural activities functioned on a collective basis modeled after the Kibbutzim of Eretz Yisrael. The names of the members who lived there on a permanent basis as well as those who still lived at their previous apartments are listed on page 187 in the book by Zvi Brown and Dov Levin, The Story of an Underground – The Resistance of the Jews in Kovno [Lithuania] in the Second World War, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1962.

On occasion, we arranged political-ideological discussions and evenings of group singing. Among the popular songs that became a hit with us were Around the Bonfire by Ya'kov Orland and Hey Harmonica. With great enthusiasm, we danced the Hora and other folkdances. It should come as no surprise that in the Ghetto our apartment became the desired gathering place for all who longed for vibrant social life. It reminded one of the dynamic Zionist pre-war public functions and the festive meetings and activities we conducted to mark cultural and national events in the optimistic atmosphere for those who would be fortunate enough to be among those able to go on Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. Among the visitors were remnants of the Socialist Zionist leaders and activists, some of whom assumed official positions in public sector and administration of the Ghetto. One of them was the policeman Hirsh Fridman who took part in the deportation of my family to Estonia. When I mentioned this tragic event to him, he was very agitated, and apologized that no one had told him that he was dealing with the family of a member of the underground. True, I had known earlier that members of the

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underground served in the police force and were required to carry out orders of the ruling powers, but since this personally affected me, it was even harder for me to accept this two sidedness. Anyway, my negative attitude to the Ghetto establishment increased even more.

Except for this painful episode, the three months I spent at 'Kibbutz Mildos 7' were like a warm spring in the somber reality of the Ghetto. More than that – our kibbutz was actually run on the model of the preparatory kibbutz of pioneers (halutzim) getting ready for their future in Eretz Yisrael. Given our circumstances, the immediate goal was changed from Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael to reaching the partisans' forests. At this time, that goal was more or less attainable, especially for the young men among us, thanks to the newly opened opportunity of getting to the Rudniki (Rudninkai) forests in the Vilna area. Unlike the unfortunate and failed attempt to reach Augustow that was carried out almost completely on foot, this undertaking was motorized by way of trucks. The objective was also closer, distance wise, Rudniki forests in the Vilna area. However, it became clear that the chances of the young women in our group, whose number was far greater than that of the young men, to go to the forests was very slight compared to the communist women. The communists, through their non-Jewish colleagues outside of the Ghetto, maintained good contacts with the partisan command in the forests. It was no wonder that in the Ghetto the impression was that the Anti-fascist Fighting Organization, that is the communists, held 'the key to the forest' in their hands. Whether we are speaking of the actual impression or an exaggeration out of all proportion, it was clear to us that the leadership of the organization controlled the make-up of the groups going to the forests. Generally, this was not spoken of in public, but from our friend Ali Rauzuk, the acting head of the Hashomer Hatzair club in the Ghetto, we heard that a bitter struggle went on over the composition of the groups going to the forest, with “the communists insisting that their opinion should be the deciding factor in their make-up.” Indeed, in one case when one of our members, Roza Strashuner was chosen to go to the forest and even passed through the Ghetto gate with her personal gear to join the others, was pushed aside in favor of someone else, a relative of the owners of 'the key.' Within a few days, arrangements were made for a small number of the girls in our group – Mira Buz, Penina Sukenik, Koka Rozenthal and Rachel Zagay – for hiding places in the villages thanks to the most valued initiative of Dr. Pessia Kissin. Only one of our female members, Gitta Pogeer who was part of our kibbutz, was privileged to get to the forest and join in the effort to fight against the Nazis and their local collaborators. One of our most esteemed members Shmulik Mordkovski, who succeeded at the time to reach Augustow, left for the forest even earlier, not in accordance with the 'key,' but thanks to his exceptional ability to reconnoiter and guide. The first to be chosen by the kibbutz to go to the forest were Barukh Grodnik (Goffer), Hayim Gekhtel (Galeen), Jakov Susnitsky, Gitta Pogeer (mentioned above), Yankel Kave, Josef Rosin and Grisha

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Sheyfer. On the occasion of their departure, 5 February 1944, the kibbutz had a festive 'going away party.' We sat around tables set with tea and candies, produced in the Ghetto. We reminisced about their participation in the group, the summer camps and the various gatherings we had. We sang some of our movement's songs that were recorded in the notebooks of one of our longest standing members, Yerahmiel Voskoboinik. Our leader Ali Rauzuk delivered the 'message of the movement.' The party reached its climax when in a festive ceremony in accordance to the tradition of the movement, a red flag was brought in and the seven members who were going out to the forest heard 'the movement pledge.' As though it were a message from another world, the following words echoed: “To be loyal to my people, my language and my homeland and to fight for freedom, friendship and justice in human society.” The experience filled evening ended with singing and dancing.

I also experienced the same expression of warmth and friendship from my colleagues when after a month my turn finally came to leave along with fellow kibbutz members Zvi Brown and Josef Melamed to join the partisans in the forest. Nevertheless, I still had to solve the problem by myself of getting a rife as a precondition for leaving. To do so I did not hesitate to sell my wristwatch, a prized Tissot that I had gotten at the time from my Uncle Moshe Levin for my Bar Mitzvah.

Standing, left to right: Uncle Moshe Levin, Aunt Rivka Guttman nee Levin,
Uncle Shabtay Levin.
Seated, left to right: Uncle Gershon Levin, Uncle Benjamin (Hone), Lewin,
my Father Tzvi Hirsh Levin

 

Like many in the Ghetto, I kept a daily personal diary, which I called “Chronicles” in which on an almost daily basis I wrote down what happened to me. I included in it idioms, folklore, jokes of the day as well as news from the war fronts that I gathered from various sources. Before leaving, to join the partisans I was going to turn over my diary to my good friend Rivka'le but she suddenly was taken to a work camp and the diary was lost.

Meanwhile, preparations including training exercises began. We were equipped with appropriate clothing and weapons. This continued for several weeks. The head instructor was Nehemia Endlin who already had acquired experience in the partisan forest and he taught us the rules of fighting in enemy territory. The end of training was marked with a party held in the shed of the Anti-fascist Organization who was in reality communist. One of their leaders, Hayim–Dovid Ratner overbearing speech on “our role as Soviet partisans … on our duty to sacrifice our blood in the holy war against German and international fascism.”

Suddenly, our colleague Zvi Brown got up after requesting permission to speak and said the following in our names:

“We are joining with the Soviet partisans and we will fulfill faithfully and sincerely every task we are assigned as partisans. But we will not forget, even for a moment, that we are doing this as Jews; as people from the Jewish Kovno Ghetto in order to revenge the blood of our brothers and sisters, our mothers and our fathers who were slaughtered because they were Jews and we will avenge the honor of our people who were murdered …” There is no way of knowing whether or not these words pleased the heads of the Anti-fascists, but the

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impression was that a large portion of those present identified with them.

Our day of departure was delayed several times and we began to think that it was a dream that would remain unfulfilled. The long hoped for day arrived – 7 March 1944. In the evening, the three of us took leave of our friends in the kibbutz apartment Mildos 7 with the traditional words, “Until we see each other again in Eretz Yisrael.” These were the last words we heard from those who remained behind to face their fate. In our innermost thoughts, we nurtured the dim hope that on the Day of Judgment they would be able to save themselves by means of the 'malina' the hiding place that they dug under the kibbutz apartment.

However, these thoughts immediately gave their place to what was in store for us in only a few minutes at the meeting place near the gate of the Ghetto for those who were leaving. After a short while, we were ordered at that place to get on a truck that had parked outside the Ghetto gate. I was incredibly surprised when I detected that there were two uniformed German policemen with weapons on the tailgate of the truck. Only after a few minutes did I realize that the two of them, Josef Melamed and Katriel Koblenz, belonged to our group that was leaving. Their assignment was to serve, as it were, as guards escorting us. More so, the electric lights near the gate suddenly went out and I understood that this was a clever ploy of our people to insure that the guards at the gate would not be able to identify us. At that moment, my estimation of the leadership of the underground deepened because of their astute and adept planning and my hope was that this would also be so in the future and that we would not be caught. While we were already sitting crowded into the truck, along with the noise of the motor we heard that someone at the gate, a policeman or someone else ask “Where are you going.” Another voice answered that the men were on their way to work in the town of Babtai. Actually, the truck did not take us to that work place but went in an entirely different direction – that is to the thick forests of eastern Lithuania in the Rudniki area, some 20 kilometers south of Vilna. That was the headquarters of the partisan group known as “Death to the German Occupiers,” whose ranks we eight women and twenty men were on our way to join. During its existence, this unit and its offshoots absorbed close to 150 fighters from Kovno Ghetto. About a third of them fell in battle. At one point at the beginning of the trip, we were ordered to remove our Yellow Stars of David from our clothing and to load our rifles with five bullets. After the command was carried out, we were told in a most decisive manner, “From now on you are partisans.” And, indeed, these words were not uttered flippantly.

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